DURHAM — Tuesday, Duke coach David Cutcliffe faced questions about his football team's overconfidence heading into a game against Maryland where the Blue Devils are -- wait for it -- the oddsmakers' favorites.
"Are we favored?" Cutcliffe asked during his weekly news conference. "Lord have mercy."
His response acknowledged the newly drawn perception of where the Devils (3-3, 1-1 ACC) stand after a 49-28 victory over N.C. State on Oct. 10. At times, it was the type of dominating performance that could cause players' heads to swell with overconfidence.
"I certainly wouldn't think we should get big-headed about anything around here," Cutcliffe added. "The only thing I want them to be is confident."
After an off week to rest and heal in preparation for Saturday's home game against Maryland (2-5, 1-2), there is an aura of confidence. Duke players insist they haven't grown cocky, even as the Blue Devils rank as the ACC's top passing team (314.5 yards a game), with a fourth-ranked scoring offense averaging 31.8 points per game.
But players are pleased with the effort in the past two contests, considering their precision against the Wolfpack and persistence a week earlier against a Virginia Tech team that pulled out a 34-26 victory.
The sense around the Devils' practice facility is that the team has gained solid footing after preseason bouts with injuries and the H1N1 virus derailed training camp efforts.
"I would characterize it as an earned good feeling," Duke safety Catron Gainey said. "We feel good right now, but we only feel good because we know we worked hard. And in order to keep feeling good, we have to keep working hard."
That has been Cutcliffe's mantra this season, as he continues to remind his team that the work ethic they carry on the practice field will determine how often they are favored to win.
Cutcliffe called Duke's 24-16 season-opening loss to Richmond "devastating," and he didn't think his players removed themselves from that fog until the week leading up to the Virginia Tech game.
During this past bye week, which included three days off for players, the team continued working on improving the running game and tackling.
"We can't afford to do anything but get better every day," said Cutcliffe, whose team is averaging a league-worst 83.0 rushing yards a game.
Desmond Scott, the freshman running back from Durham Hillside who played in three earlier games this season, was announced as the likely starter for Saturday's game. Senior back Re'quan Boyette, who has battled injuries this season, said the ground game will improve.
"We want to get out and show ourselves and prove what we can do and that we have the players to win here at Duke," he said.
Duke faces a Maryland team that has been physical with opponents at the line of scrimmage, leading the conference in sacks with 20.
But the Blue Devils don't seem to project many worries -- at least none outside of what they need to do for themselves.
Duke senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, coming off a career-best game against State, said players seem more comfortable with Cutcliffe's system. The Devils have six games remaining -- Maryland, at Virginia, at North Carolina, Georgia Tech, at Miami and Wake Forest -- and they harbor hopes of securing four wins to become bowl eligible.
"You feel good about yourself because you won a game against an in-state rival, but that's over with," Lewis said of Duke's win over State. "We're looking at it as we're 0-0, and this is our first game. And being the home opener, we feel like we're a team that has an opportunity in front of us, and we need to capitalize on it. We can do one thing: We can go forward, or we can fold."
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